Port Elizabeth of Yore: Victoria Quay

Originally the sea waves crashed to shore where Strand Streets lies today. Devoid of jetties, piers or breakwaters, the beaches stretching from the current Campanile to the South End were used as landing beaches. 

In 1857, this situation was to change. Ultimately the sandy beaches along this stretch of coast was to be replaced by a sea wall. Exactly why it was named a quay and not an embankment cannot be ascertained.

Main picture: Victoria Quay from the North Jetty

Whilst he was busy with the construction of the Cape Recife lighthouse from 1849-50, the government engineer, George Pilkington turned his attention to other issues in the area. Amongst them was the building of a seawall from the landing beaches towards the South End bight. It doing so, a large area could be reclaimed and later sold to raise a substantial sum of money. This, he estimated, could amount to as much as £100,000.

The scheme was enthusiastically received and according the Eastern Province Herald of 25th August 1849, it was proposed to be called Victoria Quay “in honour of the Queen whom we will adore.”


In March 1850, Pilkington surveyed the beach from the old jetty to the bight or a curve or recess in a coastline. It was reckoned that the reclamation would be the most profitable public work ever undertaken if the government agreed to it. It was assumed that the expense would rapidly be recovered as a metre of frontage in Port Elizabeth currently fetched £65.

Port Elizabeth taken from what I think the North Jetty. You can see the Cuthberts Building towering above the rest in Main Street. Early 1900’s.

Work eventually commenced on Victoria Quay only seven years later in 1857. By October 1858, it had been completed as far as Hunt’s sawpit and new tenders were called. Isaac Newton’s tender of £10 11s 11d per cubic metre – 6s a cubic foot – excluded materials and partial labour. was thought to be excessive as the municipal commissioners had to provide material and some of the labour. Newton agreed to provide labour if the commissioners supplied the material. However, his new quote amounted to £17 13s 2d – 10s a cubic foot – excluded materials, which he refused to reduce when requested to do so. Thus the tender was readvertised. Although the project was nearly completed, no other contractor was willing to undertake the work.

Landing beaches in 1840

Landing beaches in 1840 prior to the construction of the sea wall

Tenders were called again and in January 1859, Matthew’s tender of 18s a cubic yard which may or may not have included materials, was accepted for the first 365 metres to Hyman’s Kloof. Soon it was decided that the contractor could not  be held to the agreed time schedule of 7.3 metres per diem because of the shortage of stone. It was estimated that the contract was worth £6,000.

The sea wall from the jetty

The sea wall from the jetty

As the work had not yet commenced by April, the Commissioners elected to engage their own men to perform the work. Within three weeks, thirty metres had been built. By January 1860, the seawall had been completed to the end of J.O. Smith’s property. Finally by August, the town engineer reported that the works “have been brought to a close.” Between 1855 and the end of 1860, a total of £3,418 had been expended on the project. This was offset by £1.668 through the sale of land.

However in early 1861, the Town Council’s Seawall Committee recommended that it be completed as far as Hyman’s Kloof [present day’s Russell’s Road]. Thus Matthews recommenced work and in July was paid £109 16s 11d.

View of North Jetty from Victoria Quay

View of North Jetty from Victoria Quay














Thesis of Jon Inggs, “Liverpool of the Cape: Port Elizabeth Harbour Development 1820-70“, MA thesis, Rhodes University, 1986

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